You don't have to be a Marxist to remember what may be the most widely quoted (and misquoted) passage from the works of Karl Marx: "Hegel says somewhere that all great events and personalities in world history reappear in one way or another. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."
During his long, legendary career on the left, Ralph Nader must have read or heard versions of that quotation on many occasions. Now, as he resumes his impossible quest with the open assistance of Republicans and conservatives, he is acting out Marx's maxim.
"Tragedy" may or may not describe what happened in 2000, when the Nader candidacy drew enough votes from Al Gore in Florida and New Hampshire to deprive the Democratic nominee of victory. But to hear his impassioned rhetoric, Nader believes that the Bush administration's selling and renting of national policy to corporate interests is tragic indeed.
"Farce" aptly describes what is happening in 2004, at least so far as the latest Nader candidacy is concerned. Perhaps pining for the crowds and acclaim he evoked so well in Crashing the Party, his memoir of his last campaign, the consumer advocate and youth idol announced that he will run again this year, no matter the consequences.
Then, to his dismay, Nader discovered that three-plus years of the Bush-Cheney regime have concentrated the minds of many of his erstwhile supporters. The first to abandon his cause were celebrities like Michael Moore, who declared his preference for retired general Wesley Clark last fall and urges current visitors to his Web site to devote themselves to electing Democrats in November. (According to Nader, he wasn't even invited to the Washington premiere of Moore's blockbuster movie, Fahrenheit 9/11. His response was an embittered open letter to his "old friend" that made sport of the filmmaker's waist size.)
The defection of Moore anticipated the rejection of the Nader candidacy by the Green Party, whose leaders also seem to be familiar with that old Marx quip. Rather than renominate their 2000 candidate, they put up an unknown whose chief campaign promise is that he won't hamper the Democratic presidential candidate. The Natural Law Party also displayed little enthusiasm for Nader.
These developments are worse than embarrassing, since they have deprived Nader of easy ballot access in dozens of states where the Greens have earned a November line. Meanwhile, Democratic officials in various states are seeking to keep him off the ballot by challenging the validity of his petitions (in much the same way that President Bush tried to keep his rivals off the New York primary ballot in 2000).
Although the prospects for Nader are quickly shrinking, his would-be rescuers are already revealing themselves. The new Naderites include the strange Manhattan therapy cult that now dominates the Reform Party, which will provide ballot access in some states after endorsing him in a teleconference call last May. He can also count on at least one group of activists who are absolutely determined to see him succeed: right-wing Republicans.
Tens of thousands of dollars from major Bush donors are pouring into Nader's coffers, and he is using that money to pay for petition signatures that will get him on the ballot in swing states. The American Prospect reports that earlier this year, Nader's aides solicited a California company that usually performs such tasks for Republican candidates.
In Arizona, a former Christian Coalition staffer circulated the Nader petitions along with an anti-immigration initiative. (The resulting petitions were so riddled with error and alleged fraud that they were thrown out by the state authorities.) In Florida, the GOP chairwoman (who answers to Governor Jeb Bush, the president's brother) demanded that Democrats drop any legal effort to disqualify the Nader candidacy.
And in Oregon, where Nader recently became a featured guest on right-wing radio, two conservative organizations phoned their members to urge their attendance at a state petitioning convention in Portland. Leaders of Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Oregon Family Council explained bluntly that they have no use for Nader -- except as an instrument to siphon votes from John Kerry.
Reluctant to leave the national stage, he has accepted a bit part in a farce written and directed by the corporate politicians he affects to despise. That is a kind of tragedy too. n
Joe Conason writes a weekly column on politics for The New York Observer.